December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon 2010
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96;
Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

Starbucks is not the first place you would probably think of going for good theology. Good coffee, perhaps; good hot chocolate, maybe; but good theology, no. Lately, however, they have been doing a remarkably good job. Earlier this year, every Starbucks door had a sign that read “Take Comfort in Rituals.” As an Episcopalian, how could I disagree? Yes, rituals are wonderful! The ritual tonight and the weekly ritual of the Eucharist bring meaning and shape and purpose to my life and our life as a community. Yes, take comfort in ritual. And now, Starbucks has gone and done it again, their door today read “Stories are Gifts: Share.”

“Stories are Gifts: Share.” Every week, we gather together to share the stories of our faith. The stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Ruth, David, Esther, Isaiah, Jonah, Jesus and the disciples. These stories are a gift to us that help us make sense of this world and our lives. Tonight we are here to share one of the most important stories of them all: the story of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem for the census and found a place to stay. The animals, the friendly beasts, surround them and have given them their hay and manger. Whether they are ready or not: Mary and Joseph’s newborn son, the Christ Child, has been born and is wrapped in the swaddling cloth. Immediately the angels go to the shepherds and share the good news, they go and share the story. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And the angels celebrate, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And the shepherds rush to the stable to share and celebrate the story they have just heard with Mary and Joseph and to see the newborn infant. Mary, hearing what the shepherds have said treasures and ponders this all in her heart.

This story is a gift, and a powerful one at that. The story of this little newborn infant, utterly helpless and powerless, has the power to change the course of history and transform our lives. Even if just for a brief moment, even if just for an evening or a day or a week, God’s peace and love and mercy and wholeness can be felt through this remarkable event. The incarnation is the greatest gift God could give us; the birth of Christ is the ultimate symbol of God’s love for us. And by sharing this story, we are passing this gift along.

I have another story to share with you tonight. This second story is a story about the story of Christ’s birth. It is a story of the way that this holy story that we share tonight became a gift that when shared was able to momentarily stop a war. Many of you may already know this story; I only learned it a few years and honestly, I didn’t quite believe it the first few times I heard it. It wasn’t until I began to read the letters of the soldiers who experienced it that I believed it to be true. In the summer of 1914, the First World War had begun. War has always been brutal, but there was something about the size of this war and the new military technology that made this one especially so, and this brutality was clear fairly early on. By Christmas, casualties were high and morale was low. No one had had any decisive victories. An end did not seem in sight to what had been promised to be a short war and Christmas in the muddy trenches is not in anyone’s dreams of the perfect Christmas. The Pope had suggested a Christmas truce in this most holy of seasons and that suggestion had been rejected by all the governments involved. And yet, despite that rejection, in the muddy, miserable trenches, the peace and love and mercy of the holy story broke through and impromptu, unofficial truces happened lasting anywhere from a day to a week. These truces happened in different ways in different places all along the front lines.

Listen for a moment to two soldiers in two different trenches tell what happened in letters home to family. The first soldier:
Christmas in the trenches. It must have been sad do you say? Well I am not sorry to have spent it there and the recollection of it will ever be one of imperishable beauty. At midnight a baritone stood up and in a rich resonant voice sang, [O Holy Night]. The [cannon fire] ceased and when the hymn finished applause broke out from our side and from the German trenches! The Germans were celebrating Christmas too and we could hear them singing two hundred yards from us. Now I am going to tell you something which you will think incredible but I give you my word that it is true. At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches on which was written Happy Christmas, then leaving their trenches, unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting "comrades!" No one fired. We also had left our trenches and separated from each other only by the half frozen river, we exchanged presents. They gave us cigars and we threw them some chocolate.

And the second soldier:
Hope you all enjoyed yourselves at Christmas as I must say we did… The fun started on Christmas Eve, each side shouting and singing to each other. Eventually some of our fellows went out and met some of theirs and made an agreement between themselves which was the cause of most of our enjoyment. On Christmas Day no one would have believed we were enemies as you could see groups of Germans and English shaking hands, exchanging souvenirs, partaking of each other's cigarettes and cigars, whilst in places they buried some dead which must have lain there a long time. In the afternoon we even played football between the two lines of trenches, the Germans being interested spectators. These conditions remained the same all night and up to now but expect we shall soon be smacking into it again. Dear Aunt, it is hardly creditable but believe me it is so. It was a sight to see enemies conversing, smiling and joking.

There are hundreds of letters like these telling the story of the power of the story of Christ’s birth to transform those enemies into friends even if just for that one Christmas. Stories of how enemies sang carols together like Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful and how they drank wine together to celebrate the birth of Christ. Stories of how for a moment, the boots of the tramping warriors that we heard about in Isaiah carried gifts instead of weapons. Light briefly flickered in the darkness of war. Love held back violence.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, in the midst of our winter darkness, the light comes shining. The Christ Child and the peace that he brings have come into our hearts. This story of a child who “has been born for us, a son given to us” has the power to transform your life and my life and our world, bringing God’s unending and immeasurable love and mercy and wholeness and peace. This story is truly a gift for us to share.

(Letters can be found at:

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